Stupid Praise

Mark Lotto, i.e. the voice of sanity.

Book reviewers, on the other hand, have had no trouble making up their minds about Indecision. The Gray Lady fawned over Kunkel, 32, like a loving grandmother. In the daily New York Times, Michiko Kakutani actually reviewed Indecision from the point of view of Holden Caulfield ("Old Dwight’s book really knocked me out"). That weekend, the Times Book Review published a front-page rave by 1980s wunderkind Jay McInerney–as if the title of Spokesman for a Generation could be handed down like the Miss America crown. Two weeks later, the Book Review published Kunkel’s 4,000-word essay about novelists and terrorists on the same Sunday that the Times Magazine ran an adoring profile of Kunkel and the other founding editors of the literary magazine n+1. Kunkel was identified as "the hot young white male writer of the moment." By favorably comparing Dwight and Holden, n+1 and the Partisan Review, Kunkel and Goethe, Kunkel and Joyce, these Times pieces worked hard to establish the new author’s pedigree, his literary bona fides, like a royal genealogist rubber-stamping the pure bloodlines of a new prince. Each article was accompanied by a photo of Kunkel smiling shyly, or brooding prettily.

"Writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise," daydreams critic James Wood in the current issue of n+1. We are already familiar with the victims of stupid praise. Especially talented, especially lucky or especially well-publicized writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith were cooed over, profiled, proclaimed originals, made stars. Surely, these young authors–all of them, like Kunkel, with talents worth developing–would have benefited more from intelligent and productive hostility than from the advertising campaigns they were given by critics. Predictably, their follow-ups were greeted with idiotic hostility. This cycle of hype and backlash unquestionably fails writers. Faulkner wrote three not-great books before he wrote The Sound and the Fury; these days he’d only have gotten to write the first two. But don’t worry too much about Kunkel. Indecision’s film rights were sold for seven figures to producer Scott Rudin, who’s also working on movie adaptations of The Corrections and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

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In many if not most cultures the story tellers are the keepers of the narrative, and celebrity has always been part of that, with all of its blessings and pitfalls. Instead of an either/or of unquestioned praise and ‘hostile’ reviews, how about just realistic. Indecision is a fine book, interesting, worth reading; it’s not going to make it into the canon as the peer of the finest Joyce or Lessing. Kunkel may or may not have that book in him–but it would be great if he did.

I think Lotto’s review was pretty realistic. He praised the book for what it did well, but found it wanting in the end.
And I do have to agree that the Times went overboard with their Kunkel coverage.

The last time I remember the Times cooing so overtly, the subject was Chaing Rae-Lee and it turned out he’s an occasional golf buddy of Charles McGrath.

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3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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